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Frontier Fantasies: Imagining the American West in the Dime Novel

Frontier Fantasies

Enormously popular and critically maligned, the dime novel was one of the first forms of mass culture in the United States. The Western adventure story dominated the dime novel industry in the 1860s and 1870s. Tales of the frontier, wherever it was – upstate New York, the Great Plains, or the California gold country – helped to define a mythical American identity. Come see these “Books for the Million!” that justified Western expansion with mail-order myths of violent transgressions, passionate romances, and thrilling rescues.

The exhibition was curated by Laura Braunstein and was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries from August 15 to October 14, 2008.

You may download a small, 8x10 version of the poster: Dime Novels (2.5 MB) You may also download a handlist of the items in this exhibition: DimeNovels.

Materials Included in the Exhibition

The first book to be called a “dime novel” by its publisher, Malaeska established several elements that would come to characterize the popular Western: interracial romance, the distinction between “good” and “bad” Indians, and a sensationally melodramatic plot. After her father kills her white husband, the Native heroine takes her son to his father’s family in Manhattan, disguised as his nurse. She loses him in adulthood when the discovery of his true ancestry drives him to suicide. The tragedy of Malaeska, who dies “the heart-broken victim of an unnatural marriage,” highlights the dime novels’ trademark formula of sentimentality and violence.

  1. Ann Sophia Stephens. Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter. New York: Irwin P. Beadle, 1860. Dime Novels 66

The dime novel inherited its quintessential character, the frontier hero, from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales. A loner perfectly adapted to his wilderness environment, the frontiersman was usually a white man who rejected civilized life in favor of a higher moral order shaped by the natural world. A mediating figure, he was associated with the “good” Natives while assisting the forces of progress.

  1. Joseph E. Badger. Old Bull's-Eye, the Lightning Shot of the Plains. New York: Beadle and Adams, 1876. Dime Novels 90
  2. James L. Bowen. Mike, the Guide; or, Lost upon the Plains: A Story of Life in Texas. New York: F. Starr & Co., 1874. Dime Novels 191
  3. James L. Bowen. Scouting Dave, or, The Winnebago Renegade: A Story of the Black Hawk War. New York: American News Co., 1865. Dime Novels 32
  4. Edward Ellis. Seth Jones, or, The Captives of the Frontier. London: Beadle and Company, 1861. Dime Novels 57
  5. Hamilton Holmes. Old Rube, the Hunter. Or, the Crow Captive. A Tale of the Great Plains. New York: American News Co., 1866. Dime Novels 162

Dime novels were enormously popular with both Union and Confederate soldiers in the Civil War. According to one book historian, dime novels were “sent to the army in the field by cords, like unsawed firewood.” The war began to emerge in dime novel plots in the 1870s, often as a backdrop for patriotic stories about frontiersmen using their skills as spies or scouts for the Union. California Joe disguises himself as a rebel spy, but is “true blue, or, more properly, true red, white, and blue with the stars thrown in,” and works with the Union Army to repair the breach that erupted through secession. The dime novel hero’s story could also provide an undercover identity: in Old Hal Williams a Southerner with Northern sympathies disguises himself as a stereotypical frontiersman in order to spy for the Union.

  1. Harry Hazelton. California Joe; or, The Angel of the Wilderness, a Story of the War in Virginia. New York: Starr, 1876. Dime Novels 196
  2. Roger Starbuck. The Slaver Captain, or, Scuttled at Sea: A Story of a Cruise off the African Coast. New York: Frank Starr & Co., 1874. Dime Novels 189
  3. J. Thomas Warren. Old Hal Williams, or, The Spy of Atlanta. New York: F. Starr, 1876. Dime Novels 138
  4. Edward Willett. The Vicksburg Spy, or, Found and Lost. New York: Frank Starr & Co., 1877. Dime Novels 154

Criminal biographies were a staple of the dime novel’s British counterpart, the “penny dreadful” – itself a new package for the subject matter of the broadside murder ballads of an earlier era. While American publishers had no shortage of thrilling tales of the violent lives of notorious outlaws, dime novels often featured more respectable figures. Daniel Boone and Kit Carson were enormously popular heroes who were mythologized in their own lifetimes. Carson recounted in his autobiography that, too late to rescue a captive family of settlers, he found a dime novel version of his life story clutched in the hands of a dying woman. Dime novel publishers also capitalized on contemporary events; this biography of Lincoln was amended and reissued soon after the President’s assassination.

  1. Edward Sylvester Ellis. The Fighting Trapper, or, Kit Carson to the Rescue: A Tale of Wild Life on the Plains. New York : Frank Starr, 1874. Dime Novels 177
  2. Edward Sylvester Ellis. The Life and Times of Col. Daniel Boone, the Hunter of Kentucky. With sketches of his Cotemporaries [sic]; Narratives of St. Clair's Defeat; Mrs. Merrill's Adventures, etc., etc.New York: Beadle, 1860. Dime Novels 134
  3. George Thompson. Life and Exploits of the Noted Criminal, Bristol Bill. New York: M.J. Ivers & Co., 1851. Dime Novels 88
  4. Orville James Victor. The Private and Public life of Abraham Lincoln; Comprising a Full Account of His Early Years, and a Succinct Record of His Career as Statesman and President. New York: Beadle and Co., 1864. Dime Novels 240

In order to combat their unsavory reputation, and to profit from Americans’ perpetual desire for self-improvement, dime novel publishers issued more edifying texts as well. Beadle and Adams featured oratory collections, song books, theatrical anthologies, and even government tax codes.

  1. Beadle's Dime Song Book. No. 3: A Collection of New and Popular Comic and Sentimental Songs. New York: Beadle and Adams, 1859. Dime Novels 147
  2. The Dime Dialogues No. 6: A Fresh and Choice Collection of Original School and Parlor Dramas, Farces, Burlesques, Humurous Colloquies, Dramatic Episodes, Poetic Discourses, Etc., Etc. New York: Beadle and Adams, 1867. Dime Novels 122
  3. The Dime Dialogues No. 11: A New Collection of Original Colloquies, Minor Dramas, Comediettes, Farces and Dress Pieces, for Schools, Exhibitions, and Parlor Use. New York: Beadle and Adams, Publishers, [186-?]. Dime Novels 125
  4. The Dime Pocket Joke Book. New York: Beadle and Adams, 1875. Dime Novels 101
  5. The Dime School Speaker: Comprising I, The Popular and Dramatic Orator; II, The Sabbath School Orator. Drawn Chiefly from the Utterances of Our Most Popular Speakers, Writers and Thinkers. New York: Beadle and Adams, 1871. Dime Novels 131
  6. United States. The New National Tax Law. Complete Summary of Rates and Imposts, as Amended by Act of March 3, 1865. New York: Beadle and Co., 1865. Dime Novels 127

Dime novels perpetuated many of the most insidious stereotypes of Native Americans that continue to influence American popular culture. Cover images could portray heroic Native allies restoring captured children to their families, but more often they depicted the vicious savage. Tomahawk in hand, these “bad” Indians massacred women and children, or murdered unsuspecting white settlers in their sleep. These stories, now deeply offensive, justified Western expansion and its attendant genocide to their readers – most of whom had neither experience nor evidence that could lead them to doubt the authenticity of these mass-market myths.

  1. Friedrich Gerstäcker. The Giant Trailer, or, The Lost Scalp: A Romance of the Gold Regions.New York: Frank Starr, 1875. Dime Novels 168
  2. Friedrich Gerstäcker. War Axe, or, The Trapper’s Revenge: A Romance of the Apache Trail.New York: Frank Starr, 1875. Dime Novels 170
  3. St. George Rathborne. Roaring Ralph Rockwood, the Reckless Ranger.New York: M.J. Ivers & Co., 1878. Dime Novels 16
  4. Tales, Traditions and Romance of Border and Revolutionary Times: The Little Sentinel; Tecumseh and the Prisoners; Horsewhipping a Tyrant; The Mother’s Trial.New York: Beadle and Company, 1863. Dime Novels 219
  5. Tales, Traditions and Romance of Border and Revolutionary Times: Magnanimity of Rohn-Yen-Ness; Woman Capturing the Hessian; Battle of Bloody Brook; The Heroic Dog. New York: Beadle and Company, 1864. Dime Novels 225
  6. Tales, Traditions and Romance of Border and Revolutionary Times: The Minnesota Captive; Stephen Ball Hung by Tories; Mrs. Palmer and Putnam; Kenton Saving Boone’s Life. New York: Beadle and Company, 1864. Dime Novels 222

Although the dime novels were first published during the Civil War and Reconstruction, they rarely offered explicit criticism of the institution of slavery. One exception was Metta Fuller Victor’s Maum Guinea, and Her Plantation “Children” (1861), which was allegedly praised by both Henry Ward Beecher and Abraham Lincoln for being as influential as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Western adventure stories displaced the issue of race to an idealized frontier region. In The Deer-Hunters, black, white, and Native characters in the new settlement of Ohio danced together in harmony. African-American characters were often comic sidekicks or “faithful servants,” like the heroic Balaam in Redpath the Avenger, who rescues his captured mistress. In The Secret Shot, a mulatto woman conspires with her Native lover to destroy the family that brutalized her. Their revenge plot confounded, the couple perishes in a double suicide. Nor were white characters homogeneous; Irish, French, and German “races” added their ethnic stereotypes to the fantasy of frontier life.

  1. J. Stanley Henderson. The Willing Captive, or, The Woodyard Mystery: A Tale of Ohio River Life.New York: Beadle and Company, 1864. Dime Novels 115
  2. Herrick Johnstone. The Secret Shot, or, The Rivals of Misty Mount: A Romance of the Old North State. New York: Frank Starr & Co., 1874. Dime Novels 190
  3. John J. Marshall. The Deer-Hunters: or, Life and Love in the Ottawa Country. New York: Beadle & Co., 1865. Dime Novels 116
  4. John J. Marshall. The Outlaw Brothers, or, The Captive of the Harpes: A Tale of Early Kentucky. New York: Beadle and Co., 1864. Dime Novels 114
  5. George Henry Prentice. The Wood-Demon: A Legend of the Susquehanna.New York: Frank Starr, 1877. Dime Novels 177
  6. John Hovey Robinson. Redpath, the Avenger, or, The Fair Huntress of the Southwest; A Tale of the Trapping Ground. New York: Frank Starr, 1875. Dime Novels 171
  7. Metta Victoria Fuller Victor. Maum Guinea, and Her Plantation “Children”: or, Holiday-Week on a Louisiana Estate: A Slave Romance. New York: Beadle and Company, 1861. Dime Novels 64. Another copy is available online.

The captivity narrative – in which a white protagonist (usually a woman) is abducted by Indians, with whom she sometimes comes to sympathize – was an enormously popular genre of American literature. Captivity narratives generally have the same structure, despite the Westward expansion of the border over which the captive is carried. The Revolutionary War setting of Old Tiger, the Patriot imposes the dynamic of the frontier on the story of American independence – a woman demonstrates her patriotism by resisting marriage to the Tory baronet who redeems her from Indian captors. In many of these stories, the marriage of the former captive and her rescuer secures the border settlement and extends the frontier westward. At the ending of On the Border, the town “gradually changed; from being a frontier once it became inland. Other families, beyond them, became borderers; other persons were exposed to danger from the implacable Indian....”

  1. Henry M. Avery. The Tangled Trail, or, Signals of Danger. New York: Starr, 1872. Dime Novels 202
  2. Newton Mallory Curtis. Old Tiger, the Patriot: or, The Heroine of the Mohawk: A Tale of Patriot Devotion and Tory Treachery. New York: F. Starr, 1875. Dime Novels 174
  3. C. L. Edwards. Silver Tongue, the Dacotah Queen, or, Pat among the Red-Skins: Romance of the Indian Country. New York: Beadle and Adams, 1864. Dime Novels 106
  4. Edward Sylvester Ellis. The Vulture’s Bride, or, Jack Wyndon’s Trail: A Tale of Oregon Life. New York: Robert M. De Witt, 1870. Dime Novels 39
  5. George Henry Prentice. On the Border, or, The Bride of the Wilderness: An Episode of the Border. New York: Frank Starr, 1877. Dime Novels 155
  6. Metta Victoria Fuller Victor. The Gold Hunters: A Picture of Western Character and Pike’s Peak Life. London: George Routledge, 1861. Dime Novels 73

As in Malaeska, romance between whites and Natives in dime novels almost always ended in violent tragedy, or at the very least, erasure of Native identity and culture. In Ned Buntline’s The Red Warrior, a Comanche chief rescues a white woman captured by a rival tribe. When he cannot marry her, kills himself in an act of “savage chivalry.” Ann Sophia Stevens’s Ahmo’s Plot imagines a romance between Louis de Frontenac, the 17th-century governor of New France, and a Native woman. Frontenac atones for his transgression by committing to raise his daughter, exhorting her to “forget that this woman [her Native grandmother] was ever kin to you.” Prairie Chick is revealed to be the daughter of a frontiersman who chose to live among the Indians; united with her white half-sister, she moves East, “where she was easily persuaded to renounce her Indian habits and attire, and become a civilized being.”

  1. Ned Buntline. The Red Warrior, or, Stella Delorme’s Comanche Lover: A Romance of Savage Chivalry. New York: Frank Starr, 1874. Dime Novels 183
  2. Ned Buntline. Thayendanegea, the Terrible, or, The War-Eagle of the Mohawks: A Romance of Early New York. New York: Frank Starr and Company, 1874. Dime Novels 31
  3. J. Stanley Henderson. Prairie Chick, or, The Quaker among the Red-Skins. New York: Frank Starr, 1877. Dime Novels 160
  4. Ann Sophia Stephens. Ahmo’s Plot, or, The Governor’s Indian Child. London, New York: Beadle and Company, 1863. Dime Novels 41

Older Native women in the dime novels were either figures of great power and sympathy or comic foils. Topeka, the chief’s wife in Quindaro, frees a group of white captives. In return, she converts to Christianity, asking the frontiersman hero, “Will you teach me of the Being who rules in the sky?” Kaleolah, the Witch Queen, has been exiled from her tribe, but saves two white captives from the man who betrayed her. The Marked Bullet is a courtroom farce, in which the Native wife of a trapper is acquitted of murder in a comic demonstration of the coming of American justice to the frontier.

  1. Harry Hazelton. Quindaro, or, The Heroine of Fort Laramie: A Tale of the Far West. New York: Beadle and Co., 1865. Dime Novels 108
  2. George Henry Prentice. The Marked Bullet, or, The Squaw’s Reprieve: A Tale of Border Life. New York: Beadle and Co., 1864. Dime Novels 117
  3. T. Benton Shields. The Witch Queen, or, The Old Trapper’s Big Trail: A Romance of Devil’s Gulch. New York: Frank Starr, 1873. Dime Novels 210